Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, July 23, 2021

Four Things

1. My daughter has solved a problem for me caused in part by a sort of technology-induced blindness.

I had always been a little dissatisfied with the kinds of lunches I was packing for her. She hates bread, so sandwiches are out the window -- for starters. And then, during summer camp, she became loathe to use her bento box, because she thought it looked childish. Oh, and she wanted something hot in her meal.

And she offered by way of suggestion a very good way to do it.

Back in kindergarten, we'd gotten her a set of two thermoses. One was for drinks and the other for soup. The soup container went unused for years, but I had told her it could keep things warm, and she remembered that. (I know, because I asked her how she came up with the idea.) She wanted Spaghetti-O's that day. I wasn't sure how well it would work, so I told her so and offered to try it as an experiment.

So I went ahead and microwaved them and put them in her soup canister. It worked very well. She has since had leftover dinners, scrambled eggs, and breakfast fajita mix, heated in the microwave and kept warm in the thermos. Today, she's having chicken piccata, aka "Daddy chicken."

It's an elegant solution, and may seem blindingly obvious to many of you -- but I never thought of it because I always use a microwave when I want to heat something for lunch, and had mentally pigeonholed the canister for soup, which I generally don't regard as a meal.

Mrs. Van Horn got her some small plastic containers that can fit onto a freezer block for side dishes. She's been quite happy, and it solves a dilemma I've had for some time: How can I work at places that don't have microwaves without having to buy a lunch or resort to cold sandwiches, which I'm rarely in the mood for?

This is how, and I can thank my daughter's fresh perspective and creativity for it.

(And now that I'm editing, I recall doing something similar when my son was in a hot dog-eating phase. I'd put heated 'dogs in a drink thermos (minus the straw) for trips, knowing he wouldn't do fast food. This doesn't make my daughter's idea any less creative or, since I'd forgotten this, any less appreciated.)

Update: It is important to let children know not to use a lunch stored hot if it is not warm to the touch, or to eat from a hot container later on. The leftovers have to be discarded. More here.

The author and his wife, as game characters. There must have been no facial hair options in this game: He portrays me with my beard when possible. (Image by my son, copying permitted.)
2. Surprise, surprise: My son loves computer games. He will sometimes try to induce his parents to play -- or simply have more character options -- by creating characters for us.

The first time he did this, he got me to play Among Us by making me a character named Nin, with a green space suit (my favorite color) and a "Florida hat," as I like to call the kind I wear to the beach.

His latest creations are of me and Mrs Van Horn, at right. These were extra characters that my wife saved from digital oblivion when it became apparent he needed to get rid of them due to some kind of limit in the game he was playing. He always does a good job, considering the media at his disposal.

He once did great Lego miniatures of my in-laws. I believe they ended up using my photos of those in their Christmas letter last year.

3. I was glad I took Cal Newport's advice to have a "working memory" file on all my electronics devices, including my phone.

This was great for taking notes during my kids' latest check-up. Mrs. Van Horn always wants to know their heights and weights, and we're monitoring a medical condition my daughter shares with me, so I had a great place to keep track of the new data and what I need to do next.

My daughter is closing in on being as tall as her mother. A year or so should do it, I think.

4. I like the fact that in Florida, unheated swimming pools have tolerable water temperatures during most of the summer. By contrast, back in Maryland, I developed a rule of thumb after several times of having the kids ask me to take them swimming, only to get out of the water and ask to leave because it was too cold: No swimming unless it has been at least 85 for at least three days running. Ground temperatures lag ambient air temperatures.

I do face a weather problem here, though. Around this time of year, it pretty reliably thunders and rains in the afternoon -- the time it would otherwise be best to take a dip. Often, it's obvious, and I have no issue since the kids know that swimming during thunderstorms is a Bad Idea.

One day, it seemed nice, and I was in the mood to go swimming -- but the forecast called for scattered thunderstorms. I looked outside and there were threatening clouds in many directions, despite the sunshine.

So I decided against swimming and kept my trap shut about the whole idea.

Unknown to me, Pumpkin was Facetiming with a school friend, and they hatched a scheme to cajole their parents into a play date at the pool at 3:00.

I had to say no to their plan, and I explained why, but the momentary sunshine outside didn't help, despite the fact I took her outside and pointed to all the clouds.

The lightning show and torrential downpour fifteen minutes later were a welcome and timely demonstration of my superior fatherly wisdom.

Sometimes the weather does cooperate!

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Added note to Item 1.


Newport Bests Napoleon's Method

Thursday, July 22, 2021

A while back, I noted a link at Hacker News to a blog post titled "Do Nothing." I'll allow its terseness to stand in for a more verbose explanation of this workflow method, which one commenter identified as the Napoleon Technique (more on that here):

Image by Volodymyr Hryshchenko, via Unsplash, license.
I spent my early career as a sysadmin in a company of about 300 people. These interactions were frequent. Being [a] young upstart I would jump on them straight away.

Often I would spend hours solving the problem, prioritising it above what I was previously doing, only to find it wasn't important to begin with.

The reason people make these requests is that it removes a burden from the requestor. They have some stress, and they need someone to offload that stress on. This has nothing to do with the actual problem and everything to do with the person's peace of mind. [bold added]
The post opened with examples of such problems -- which the other person was able to solve on his own relatively quickly.

The function of these minor asks for the requestors as stress relief reminded me of comments Cal Newport often makes regarding what he calls the hyperactive hive mind, in which people will make minor requests of others through such channels as Slack or email: The source of the stress relief is primarily through capture: The problem is somewhere in writing and won't get lost as the person asking moves on to what he really needs to do at the moment.

Newport's solution isn't identical to the Napoleon method or to earlier advice to ignore email for long periods. (Indeed, a quick search of his site for Napoleon yielded only one hit -- for Napoleon Hill.)

Newport's advice is to get this stuff out of email/chat:
You can't ... avoid this work, but you can find better alternatives to simply passing messages back and forth in an ad hoc manner throughout the day.
Specific strategies he suggests to deal with a flood of non-urgent requests are (1) using scheduling apps to arrange meetings, (2) moving obligations into role-specific, non-email repositories, and (3) holding office hours.

It is on a podcast in which Newport answers a question about office hours that he sounds the most like the post about doing nothing. The very fact that many people will have to wait to discuss a small matter will cause them to think more deeply about what they want to discuss. Two common things happen as a result: What would have been, say, a long email chain gets compressed into a short interaction -- or the person who would have emailed about a trivial matter finds or figures out the solution in the process of thinking a little bit more about the issue. In the second case, a small problem disappears, and in any case, the person following Newport's recommendations is spared lots of time and context-shifting.

Not to short-sell Napoleon: He did make exceptions to his rule for holding his mail for three weeks before reviewing it. But Newport's method would seem to have fewer things delayed unnecessarily and with a far better response time!

As someone who has struggled with procrastination all his life, I have occasionally seen my tardiness humorously "pay off" with the demise of one obligation or another. In some cases, it is clear that the procrastination was as if I'd employed Napoleon's Method. It's good to know that one can do this intentionally and systematically, and experience the good fortune of problems disappearing or not existing at all on not just a regular basis, but routinely.

-- CAV


California 'Math' Is a Sad Self-Parody

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

I am at a loss for words after reading an open letter, hosted by the Independent Institute, demanding that California replace a proposed K-12 math curriculum that includes the following, among other loony things, all quoted in the letter from the proposal:

  • [F]ringe teaching methods such as "trauma-informed pedagogy;"
  • [T]eachers insert[ing] "environmental and social justice" into the math curriculum;
  • [H]aving teachers develop students' "sociopolitical consciousness;"
  • [A]ssigning students -- as schoolwork -- tasks [to] solve "problems that result in social inequalities;"
  • [And, my favorite, d]iscourag[ing] accelerating talented mathematics students.
I'll quote a couple of the paragraphs from the letter, which mostly is on point:
In California, the dunces run the classrooms. (Image by cogdogblog, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
We believe infusing mathematics with political rhetoric is alien to mathematics as a discipline, and will do lasting damage -- including making math dramatically harder for students whose first language is not English. We believe that all students without exception have natural gifts they can use to learn school mathematics, and therefore all students are harmed by refusing to recognize students' giftedness. We thus find it immoral and foolish to intentionally hold back the intellectual growth of students by forcing them to waste time in unchallenging classes. Those who are ready to move up, should do so. They should not be held back for fear of recognizing the existence of differences in giftedness -- differences which are a reality in every human endeavor.

We believe that the modern world of science and technology -- and of constitutional democracy, human rights and expanded opportunity for all -- arose largely because societies learned to value inquiry that was disinterested (i.e., "objective" and "neutral"), rational and coherent. It arose by moving away from judging ideas on the basis of cultural origins and group identity in favor of judging them according to their real merit. We believe, therefore, that this proposed framework must be replaced with one that will truly serve equity [sic] and justice by living up to the very moral aspirations this framework rejects. [bold added]
Save for the use of the term equity, this is as close to the best reply to such nonsense possible short of calling for the separation of education and state.

-- CAV


Zoning 'Goes Wrong' Because Zoning Is Wrong

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Writing at The Federalist, David Larson makes quite a few interesting points regarding the left's attempt to federalize zoning law, often referred to as the "war on the suburbs" by conservatives.

Probably Larson's best point is that conservatives are failing to uphold the right to property:

Image by Michael Tuszynski, via Unsplash, license.
This is where the fight over "single-family zoning" comes in. In many cities, the bulk of land is zoned in a way that only detached houses with large-sized lots can be built. If you want to build townhouses, a corner store, a duplex, or, God forbid, an apartment complex, good luck.

[Tucker] Carlson argues that if the federal government pressures towns to scale back single-family zoning, you "are no longer in charge of how large your lot sizes can be." But what he really means is, you will no longer be in charge of how large your neighbor's lot size will be.

Are conservatives only against impositions on freedom and property rights from the federal government, while local governments should have absolute power over the size and use of all property in their jurisdictions?
To paraphrase Mel Gibson in the "The Patriot," who was paraphrasing American royalist Mather Byles, "Would you tell me, please, Mr. Carlson, why should I trade one tyrant 3,000 miles away, for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?" [bold added]
This is an excellent point, but it is compromised by Larson's failure -- common among conservatives -- to uphold individual rights on principle as an absolute. This part of his essay is titled, "Zoning Gone Wrong."

Why not Zoning Is Wrong?

That said, many of his other comments are worthwhile, for they do highlight the many ill effects of suburban-type zoning, such as long commutes, unaffordable housing, and a lack of control over our own property.

But this essay goes off the rails quite ironically shortly after his second (and second-best) point:
[J]ust because some on the "other side" are for something doesn't mean we need to reflexively fight it. Many on the left who care about this issue seem to be motivated by their belief that this model is better for the environment and that it makes affordable housing more available and dispersed. [bold added]
Amen to the part in bold, with a big but.

Larson would seem to be in favor of the federalized zoning because it would -- in his imagination -- cure many of the ills caused by the zoning regime we currently have in place.

That is the same kind of fool's paradise we inhabit every time a President wrongly uses an executive order that creates an outcome we happen to like. If you are green, you loved it when Biden killed the Keystone Pipeline by executive order immediately after he took office -- the same one Trump revived soon after he was inaugurated, to the temporary relief of energy advocates.

When our government no longer does its job, of protecting individual rights, including the right to property, our individual aspirations for how to supply ourselves with the energy we need -- or live in what we regard as an ideal community -- are reduced to pipe dreams if they don't already exist and placed under threat from any change of public mood or officialdom if they do.

Analogous case: The left favors vaccinations and vaccine passports. Many on the right reflexively fight vaccination and want to stop businesses from inquiring about vaccination status. Not reflexively fighting vaccination need not and should not entail advocacy of forced vaccination nor violating a businessman's right of association by banning him from asking about vaccination status. It should entail giving solid reasons to consider getting a shot, while also advocating that the state butt out completely beyond a proper response to the pandemic.

So it is here: By merely replacing dumb and wrong zoning laws because "suburbia" is ugly, expensive, etc., and not because it's wrong to tell land owners what to do with their own property, Larson's case at best can be mistaken for We need better zoning, if that isn't what it actually is.

I can't tell. Worse, it very easily can get marshalled as an argument for federalized zoning.

It may be true that we won't repeal zoning anywhere anytime soon. And, yes, the kind of less restrictive zoning Larson wants may be the best achievable alternative today. But not being clear that one advocates as much as a temporary waypoint on the road to property freedom causes what could be an effective argument for doing even that into just another voice among the many squabblers over what kind of zoning we'll have for the time being, and effectively, a capitulation.

I want the same vast array of living options Larson does, but I'll be damned if I'll consider federalized zoning as the right way to achieve those things. A real fight for such a value would entail advocating the abolishment of zoning altogether, as well as restoration of respect for what an owner wishes to do with his property, so long as he violates no one else's rights.

Larson is correct: The right is inconsistent about respecting property rights, and that is a problem worthy of addressing. But the way to do that is to advocate property rights. Do that effectively enough, and you will incidentally also win over those on the left who see that any valid concerns they have (affordable housing is one, forcing people to lease to criminals is not) will be served by the same.

The reason zoning -- or any other instance of government fiat overriding individual rights -- "goes wrong" and limits our options is because zoning is wrong. Unless a property owner violates someone else's rights through the use of his property, such as by creating a nuisance, the government should have no say whatsoever on the matter.

-- CAV


Green Bus Fleet Achieves Zero Emissions

Monday, July 19, 2021

Over at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw reports that Philadelphia's fleet of 25 electric buses, purchased in 2016 for $1 million apiece, has finally achieved zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Do note that this report isn't coming from some rainbows-and-unicorns green outlet, whose reporters do not seem to understand that the electricity required for such vehicles has to come from somewhere and, more often than not, that somewhere is a fossil fuel power plant. Or that it takes forever to charge batteries built on today's technology, which isn't improving very rapidly.

What we have here is: someone on the right tacitly admitting that such a bus fleet is emissions-free.

You might ask: What is this? A cover-up? Why aren't they admitting it?

Indeed, in a virtual factory visit in April, none other than President Biden called the manufacturer, Proterra, a "company of the future."

Maybe a better question would be: Why haven't the news media been shouting such news from the rooftops? Why haven't I heard about this at least seventy times since I woke up by now?

Stop teasing us, Gus. How did they do it?

The Free Beacon, as quoted by Shaw, reports in part:

Why do greens invariably take pro terra to mean contra humanitatem? (Image by mliu92, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
More than two dozen electric Proterra buses first unveiled by the city of Philadelphia in 2016 are already out of operation, according to a WHYY investigation.

The entire fleet of Proterra buses was removed from the roads by SEPTA, the city’s transit authority, in February 2020 due to both structural and logistical problems—the weight of the powerful battery was cracking the vehicles’ chassis, and the battery life was insufficient for the city’s bus routes. The city raised the issues with Proterra, which failed to adequately address the city’s concerns.

The city paid $24 million for the 25 new Proterra buses, subsidized in part by a $2.6 million federal grant. [bold added]
Oh. That's not exactly a trade secret, is it?

Indeed, and speaking of trade, we should look far beyond Shaw's wondering aloud about which of (a) SEPTA, (b) Proterra, or (c) both should be on the hook for the problems with these buses, which would have been obvious from the get-go had any of numerous parties been out to make an honest profit.

Note that SEPTA is a government entity, whose financial mistakes will be papered over by tax increases, borrowing, or grants -- but I repeat myself. Proterra, although a publicly-traded company, is very much a creature of the government and our culture's dominant quasi-religion, environmentalism: Its raison d'etre is to cater to government programs behind the adoption of unreliable green energy sources; it fed on grant money early on; and much or all of its market would be government transit authorities, which are hardly profitable or efficient.

The kinds of questions Shaw asked would have been front-and-center in the minds of a proprietor of a transit company who would go under if he ignored them or were so incompetent as not to think of them. Private enterprise would have saved lots of money here, just to start with, and would have motivated someone to build better buses in the first place -- even battery-powered if truly practical.

So, yes, this whole episode is scandalous, but the real story is this: Even with all this propping-up, battery-powered vehicles have -- once again -- proven to be a failure -- but only insofar as providing transportation is concerned. In terms of reducing emissions, they have been a resounding success.

Remember this the next time someone like Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, tout green energy as the future. And ask yourself what they think the purpose of what they are calling energy sources actually is.

-- CAV


Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, July 16, 2021

Four Neat Things I Can Thank Stack Overflow For

Software developer Joel Spolsky's Stack Overflow site recently sold for quite a tidy sum. The site, which Wikipedia aptly describes as "a question and answer website for professional and enthusiast programmers," has helped me -- definitely one of the enthusiasts -- do all kinds of things with computers that save me time or make my life easier.

Here are just four instances out of many that I've been able to hack something together without having to spend too much time figuring something out, bothering others with newbie questions, or shelling out money for software that will become obsolete after five years of annoying me.

Image by Gus Van Horn. Copying permitted.
1. A few years ago, I wanted a way to see changes to a web page quickly while editing it. From slinging HTML, I knew how to get a web page to auto-update, but I didn't want to have to explicitly add/remember to take the code out every time I edited an HTML or markup file.

But Gus, just have your browser reload, you might say. I didn't want to do that, either. I basically wanted an editing environment where I could edit in one pane and see changes in the way the web page would look in another in close to real time. I realized I could have a script add the auto-refresh code to a dummy file based on what I was editing. Great, but then the browser is just auto-refreshing the dummy file ... unless I can have that re-generate every time I save my edits to the file I'm actually concerned about. Stack Overflow helped me find how to monitor my saves so I could make a new dummy file, which the browser would load on auto-refresh.

With that piece of the puzzle, I got the HTML/markup editing environment pictured at right. I use this almost every time I blog.

2. Yeah, it's cool to ask Alexa what the weather is like, but I'm really more of a written word guy, and I can't get away with this during writing/planning time at zero-dark thirty, anyway. Not with kids asleep in the next room.

So, as much as I liked her pithy description of the day's weather, I needed another source. The National Weather Service site fits the bill. (Take a look.) Nice, but I have a bad memory for things like this. So I wanted a description of the weather in my planner for reference, and hate to cut and paste.

Stack Overflow helped me figure out how to fetch the web page and extract the short description of the weather for that day. Now, I just hit a couple of keys in Emacs and I have something like this in my planner:
- Today: Partly cloudy. Highs in the upper 80s. Southeast winds 5 to 10 mph increasing to 10 to 15 mph in the afternoon.
- Tonight: Mostly clear in the evening then becoming partly cloudy. Lows in the mid 70s. Southeast winds 10 to 15 mph becoming south 5 mph after midnight.
I do have to change a configuration setting when I travel. I once started to try to automate that, but realized that that was going to be too much of a rabbit hole to be worth it. (Some of you are doubtless saying, Too late!)

3. Yeah, there's probably a way to click on two points and get a distance in Google Maps, but I found out quickly enough from Stack Overflow how to collect the screen coordinates of my mouse.

With that knowledge, I wrote a script that computes distance after I click on Points A and B and each end of the scale, and enter the units.

Better yet, I can use this on any map or image of a map, and I don't have to hunt around and guess if the powers that be at Google decide to hide their method of getting distances under some new, faddish redesign in the future.

4. I save lots of time by having my computer automatically download news from a handful of sites several times a day, remove redundant links, and produce a news and commentary digest I can quickly look at on any of my devices. (I sometimes get ideas for blog posts while looking at this in line at the grocery store.)

Some time along the way, I realized I could also archive these. Now, in addition to having a time-saving list of current news, I have an archive that I can search, including by date.

I consulted Stack Overflow and many other sites quite often as I gradually developed the tools that allow me to do these things. I still use other sources (for news and scripting hints), of course, but overall, Stack Overflow keeps me from having to spend too much time looking at news.

-- CAV


Admin: Blog Template Mostly Fixed

Thursday, July 15, 2021

After making some headway riffing off yesterday's temporary blog template, I noticed an option to use a "first generation" blogger template in the Blogger editor. I tried that, followed by a restore command and an upload of my old template.

VoilĂ  and whew!

The bad news: I'll still need to manually rebuild the blog list in the footer. The good news: I was thinking of overhauling that, anyway. I will do that as able.

In the meantime, my annoyance at this problem from out of left field is somewhat mollified by my ability to cut down the amount of time I was afraid it would take to recover from it.

Onward!

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: The blogrolls have mostly been restored, save for a large number of inactive or defunct blogs that I left off. For the most part, I am done recovering from the template problem I encountered. There may be a few minor cosmetic changes over the next few days and possibly a new catagory or two of blogroll items will make their debuts.

If you had been listed on the blogroll and notice that your blog is missing or the link isn't correct, feel free to email me or leave a comment to that effect.


I Did Stop Getting Spammed

Purse strings resemble those that control a marionette in more ways than one. (Image by Icons8 Team, via Unsplash, license.)
Way back in grad school, I knew a leftist architecture student who would occasionally spam me with political email. This ended shortly after an email she sent me in an effort to prevent de-funding of some government art sponsorship program by the new Republican congressional majority. I usually ignore email like this, but something about this one caused me to realize I had a teachable moment on my hands, so I wrote her a short note, something like: "Government funding of the arts means government control of the arts."

Did I change her mind?

Only on the issue of whether it would serve her purposes to spam me, or so it would seem.

Knowing what I know now, I can entertain a faint hope -- that, yes, I should have kindled a bit at the time -- that my note precipitated the first step of a journey towards a better understanding of the corrupt bargain too many of us make by accepting government funding.

All I am likely to know about the matter, though, is to try to do better next time.

-- CAV